Sexual abuse seems to be about doing as much damage as we can to another human being without actually physically destroying them. That was the inescapable conclusion for me from watching BBC TVs 90 minutes documentary about the people victimized by Jimmy Savile on 11th April. We saw person after person whose lives had been reduced to turmoil by Jimmy’s interventions. Some had found a way through, in several cases after many years, sometimes through the support of another person or through finally being believed, but others had not. I find it impossible to measure the hurt that Savile did to so many people. It is impossible in some senses to grasp – it seems so massive and fundamental. It is difficult not to feel anger and hatred towards him but also to the powerful people who inescapably knew what he did and themselves did nothing to stop it.
A leit motif running through the programme was the case of a young woman who had been sexually abused as a young child seeking justice now. Perhaps the idea was to show how Operation Yew Tree prompted by Savile’s emerging crimes, had really made a difference. But at the end we saw her howl with pain when a jury rejected all five charges that related to her abuse while finding the perpetrator guilty of five other charges where both her and a friend had been abused and they could support each other’s accounts. Some sense that makes. Clearly juries still have some learning to do. And what continuing suffering will she have to endure. I hope her partner, family and friends can help ensure that that story has an end.
We have become familiar recently with the mantra that things were different in the seventies and that the unveiling of predatory disc jockeys, entertainers and other powerful and famous people was merely a sign of the times. No, adult and child rape and sexual abuse have of course always been with us. But they flourish under certain conditions. Conditions of unaccountability, discrimination and inequality. We’ve heard how young women were ignored in Rotherham and elsewhere despite being on the receiving end of organized sexual abuse operating on almost an industrial scale. I have read of US soldiers in the Vietnam War who used the opportunities that a brutal conflict involving civilians gave them to sexually attack children. I will always remember the certainties of a colleague of mine working with homeless people, that some boys working on the prostitution ‘meat rack’ in Piccadilly disappeared and were murdered in the late sixties and seventies to serve the tastes of powerful paedophiles. That’s a ghost that has still not been stilled, but equally has yet to be properly addressed and resolved.
I remember as a child watching an episode of a TV police series which left me haunted, so I can still remember its frightening impact now. That was because in this episode there was a ‘child molester’ who ended up killing a little boy. All very vague, little spelled out and all the more haunting for that. Since then we have learned that sexual attacks on children (and indeed women) – ones that end in murder and ones that don’t – can be very different from this stereotype. First we learnt that it wasn’t just strangers who attacked and killed children, but sometimes close and loved family members. Then we learned it could be famous, powerful people that we welcomed into our homes through our TVs. Not just people like Savile who many already found weird and disturbing, but people with warm and friendly images like Rolf Harris.
So what is the bottom line? There will always be people who want to abuse children sexually. Perhaps this is simply the nature of their sexuality. But what really matters is how much free rein people have to do this; how easy it is to get away with it. And mostly we know that what this is concerned with is how much or how little people who are victimized will be valued, listened to and believed. Not surprising that attackers like Savile haunted places of inequality and institutionalization; from TV studios to residential services, children’s wards and long stay hospitals. And not surprising that they choose people who are least likely to be listened to. This issue is not an isolated one. It connects very closely with the structures and internalized prejudices of our society. And the fact that those prejudices are so powerful and so readily internalized, means that for people victimized the struggles, guilt and difficulties are magnified even more. What Savile and co really tell us is that if we want to challenge sexual abuse we must challenge discrimination and inequality and we must treat sexual crimes as if they were more rather than less important than property ones.